Setting Out A Dissertation

By Carrie Winstanley

Outlining your dissertation involves two main aspects: a practical list of what you need to do and a sketch of what you want to say.

First, there is a list of 31 items that you can use as the basis of your own to-do list. Writing your to-do list is the easiest part of your dissertation, being just a list of tasks. The tasks are arranged roughly in the order that you’re likely to do them, although some of the tasks overlap.

Second, the outline of your dissertation needs to say clearly what thoughts and ideas you’re going to include in each section of your dissertation. Sketching out what you need to say and structuring the presentation of your thoughts and ideas can be done in a number of ways but the two most popular methods are linear planning and concept planning (sometimes known as ‘mind-mapping’).

People often have strong feelings about which style they prefer; each method has pros and cons.

If you find creating the outline a useful part of your planning strategy, it’s a good idea to use the same outline style for each chapter. This helps you to write a dissertation with a clear, tight structure and avoiding repetition and confusion. A well-structured outline leads to a coherent dissertation.

Never think about your dissertation plan as set in stone – a good dissertation develops as you’re working on it and you’ve no need to be afraid of moving slightly away from your original plans. If you’re going wildly off track however, seek support from your supervisor as soon as possible.

Use linear planning for your dissertation

When using linear planning for your dissertation outline you list your tasks in order of doing them, starting with your first dissertation task through to the end. Linear planning makes for a very clear outline, but it’s more difficult to make changes as you go along than with a concept map. For your linear plan you can use the chapter headings recommended by your supervisor or the headings in the following list:

  1. Introduction and rationale:

    ‘Why on earth am I doing this is?’ ‘What led me to this topic?’

  2. Research question:

    Explain all the terms in the research question so that they’re clear.

  3. Outline of the literature:

    ‘Who are the key thinkers?’ ‘What are the key texts?’ ‘What is the underlying theoretical idea?’

    Now choose the 4a or the 4b heading.

  4. 4a.Research methodologies:

    Pros and cons of different methods, for example questionnaire, interview, observation

    Presentation of data – what I’ve found out

    Analysis of data/Discussion of data

  5. 4b.Main theorists and supporters:

    Counter arguments and supporters

    My own view of the argument (and supporting theorists)

  6. Conclusions and suggestions for further research:

    What I have found in relation to the research question

    Ideas for developing the dissertation topic

  7. Appendices and bibliography:

    Additional material that would interrupt the flow of writing

    All the references and materials used

Consider concept-mapping your dissertation

If you prefer a more visual approach to your outline plan of your dissertation, a concept or mind-map may suit you better. The disadvantage of the concept map is that you still have to write your dissertation in the traditional linear format, and so you’re going to have to convert your concept map into another form.

A key advantage of a concept map is that you can modify your listed tasks as you go along without having to completely rewrite your map each time. In the following figure, you can see an example of a concept map for a linguistics dissertation looking at how children speak. (The references are fictional.)

Create to-do lists for your dissertation

You need to be aware of the danger of making a to-do list: you can spend more time creating the list then you spend working on your dissertation. However, a comprehensive to-do list has some useful purposes:

  • Keeping in front of you an overview of your work.

  • Providing a clear record of your progress so that you know what’s left to do.

  • Helping build a sense of satisfaction as you tick things off.

When you’re creating your own to-do list, your list is tailored to your dissertation, but many of the following suggestions are likely to be elements of your list. Use the ‘To-do list’ as a basis for creating your own.

  • Choose a subject and carry out some initial investigations.

  • Have a look through dissertations written by other students.

  • Write a proposal/finalise your research question.

  • Ask your supervisor to sign off your research topic.

  • Decide what type of dissertation you’re going to write, empirical or non-empirical.

  • If you’ve chosen an empirical study, think through your research methodologies and check your decisions with your supervisor.

  • Spend some time organising how you’re going to keep your notes in order.

  • Read, read, read! Take notes of the literature as you go.

  • Read about the pros and cons of the different research methodologies and take notes as you go.

  • Start writing up the essential parts of your literature review and research methodologies – this is an ongoing process and the notes from your reading form part of your dissertation.

  • Plan the overall structure of your dissertation – create outlines for each chapter.

  • If your writing is not flowing by this stage, have a go at starting your introduction/rationale just to get some words on paper.

  • Arrange for your supervisor to look at some of your draft work.

  • Make sure that you’re all set for carrying out empirical work. For example, have you had ethical clearance? Have you sought permissions from subjects?

  • Sketch out the general arguments (for and against) for your dissertation. If your work is empirical, you’re looking for ideas to support your findings and provide a backdrop to your work. If your work is non-empirical, this to-do list item should be tackled in detail.

  • Empirical only: carry out your empirical work.

  • Empirical only: organise the data you collect and make a note of any difficulties (these notes are going to be very helpful for discussion when you come to finish writing your research methodologies).

  • Empirical only: analyse your data and discuss your conclusions with your supervisor.

  • Non-empirical only: discuss the key thinkers and detractors of your topic with your supervisor, checking that you’ve understood their ideas and that you haven’t left out any key thinkers.

  • Write up your findings/thoughts.

  • Write (or redraft) your introduction and conclusion.

  • Empirical only: check over diagrams, charts and so on, and make decisions about what you’re going to put in the appendices.

  • Arrange for your supervisor to look at some more of your draft work.

  • Pull together everything you’ve done so far checking that you’ve covered all the elements required – this is your first full draft.

  • Make a new to-do list for filling in any gaps and be sure that you’ve covered everything.

  • Write up your final version, by editing your existing work and completing any outstanding items.

  • As you complete chapters, ask a friend to proofread carefully.

  • Keep in touch with your supervisor, checking that she has enough time for you if you need extra help.

  • Be sure that you know the rules for binding your dissertation and check how long binding takes.

  • Keep the submission date for your dissertation right in front of you and be sure of submitting your dissertation on time.

  • Relax!

It's probably the most important piece of research and writing you will undertake during your undergraduate career – so the thought of writing your dissertation can be daunting. Starting out with a robust plan will focus your research, use your time efficiently and keep the task manageable.

Select your field of interest

First things first: what topics have you most enjoyed on your course? Investigating a subject you genuinely enjoy will make dissertation research less overwhelming.

Do as much preliminary reading around the subject area as you can to make sure there is plenty of literature out there to support your initial ideas.

Take a good look at the most recent writings in your areas of interest. They will help you to identify the best angle to take and could highlight the gaps in current inquiry that you can address.

Choose an approach and a title

What will your line of inquiry be? You may, for example, wish to extend a study that has already been carried out, apply a theory to some practical experience and critique how successful it is, or closely analyse an idea or object using a particular approach.

Your approach will inform your title. The title should clearly present the line of inquiry your dissertation will take. If you're unsure, make up a working title. You could even compose a few different titles each with a slightly different emphasis, and keep them all in mind as you do your research.

Remember to run your title by your dissertation tutor. They will be able to give you advice, help you refine any grey areas and suggest reading for research.

Make an outline plan

The general essay structure is as follows:

• Introduction – say what you are going to say
• Main body – say it
• Conclusion – say what you've said

You can break down each of these three areas further. In the introduction, your subheadings could include:

• What you are examining
• How are you going to do it (concepts/theories/studies)

The main body might break down into:

• Definitions, setting out areas of research, anticipating problems
• Main argument or theme
• Alternative argument or theme

And your conclusion would include:

• Summary of your findings
• Is there a solution?
• What remains unresolved?
• What future research could illuminate the issue further?

Start a list of sources

When you're planning your sections, include the full names of books and page numbers wherever you can to help you retrieve information quickly as you write your draft. It is also useful to begin to compile you bibliography during the planning stage.

Review and adjust your plan as you go

Even the best laid plans go astray – so don't worry! As you read and research around your key areas, the structure and direction of your initial plan may shift. This is the beauty of having a plan. As a potential new focus arises, you can adjust your title, section headings and content notes to encompass your new ideas before your draft writing begins. A good plan means you will not lose focus on the end result.

• Next in this three-part series: How to write your dissertation.

Thanks to Goldsmiths University for supplying this content.

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